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U-M and city of Ann Arbor team up to pursue gigabit broadband networks

Blink and it's gone. Or maybe it's still coming. In a push to reach eye-opening speeds for broadband internet service, the University of Michigan and the city of Ann Arbor have joined Gig.U, a nationwide consortium of 29 universities pressing for the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to research universities and their home communities. We're talking networks with speeds in gigabits per second – 1,000 times faster than the megabits per second services commercially available.

Gig.U, launched in late July, was fueled by the unprecedented public response to the Google Community Fiber competition, says Dan Atkins, the associate vice president for residential cyber infrastructure and W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan. Over 1,100 communities nationwide, including Ann Arbor, vied last year to be the recipients of an experimental one-gigabit broadband network. Just two – Kansas City, Kan. and Kansas City, Mo. – were chosen.

This enthusiasm prompted Blair Levin, former staff director of the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan, to visit universities around the country to see whether this interest could be funneled into finding other sources to build these high-performance networks. The thinking went, as Atkins relates it, "Is there any way we can form a coalition to get additional resources to invest in more gigabit community experiments than the two that Google has?"

Such powerful networks could be used in high definition video conferencing, for possible applications in the biomedical and telemedicine fields, and for information sharing between universities, Atkins says. And Gig.U sees them as a driver of economic growth and entrepreneurship in their neighboring communities, enabling advances made on campus to be applied offsite.

Yet the fact that there's no crisp answer to the demand question is part of the problem of why gigabit speeds aren't yet a reality, according to Atkins. "This does have the flavor of a build it and they will come figure out what to do with it kind of thing."

He coins the effort a "long shot". It's a 'Which comes first?' issue of entities like AT&T and Comcast wanting to know the demand before investing in such costly infrastructure. Gig.U is calling for private funding for this initiative.

"So the question is, is there any way that this coalition of universities could help break the chicken or the egg cycle... could they play a kind of a neutral convening ground that might even get an AT&T and Comcast and a Verizon or some others to come together and try some pilot projects, co-invest in some pilot projects to establish some additional gigabit communities beyond what Google is doing. And maybe a little bit of their incentive might be the fear of Google, of Google actually entering the gigabit network market and figuring out a business model for supporting gigabit networks before they do," he poses.

"The whole history of technology illustrates that when a fundamental capability is there, that people figure out how to use it and it quickly doesn't become enough," Atkins points out. He cites Thomas Watson, an early president of IBM, who speculated that at most six computers would be all the country would need. And, he adds, "The original backbone for the ARPANET, the thing that started the internet – the speed of that, the superhighway for that – was an order of magnitude slower than the network connection you have coming into your home."

Google has made its awards, but that doesn't mean this gig is up.

"There are some [entities] who've stepped forward to try to capitalize on the work and energy and the statements of interest and to find a way of getting resources for more communities to explore gigabit connectivity. Ann Arbor and the U-M are one of those," Atkins says. "And stand by for future developments."

Sources: Dan Atkins, associate vice president for residential cyber infrastructure and W.K. Kellogg Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan; Gig.U
Writer: Tanya Muzumdar

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